Jeffrey LewisStatus of Iran

[This is my best shot at a summary of recent developments in Iran-European 3 (Britain, France, Germany) negotiations. Previous posts over the weekend have been archived. A list, with links, is available at the bottom of this post. Ed.]

Representatives from Iran and three European governments (EU3) are meeting on November 5 to resume negotiations over the future of Iran’s nuclear program. In order to verify any suspension of uranium enrichment before the IAEA meets on November 25, any interim agreement needs to be reached around November 10—a diplomat close to the talks told Reuters. The US is expected to press the IAEA on November 25 to refer the matter to the United Nations Security Council.

European Proposal

The European deal was outlined in a confidential document, obtained by AFP, that was presented to the G8 in advance of negotiations. Diplomats in Vienna confirmed the outline remained the basis of the European position “although modifications might still be made.”

In essence, Iran would agree to indefinitely suspend all enrichment and reprocessing related activities in a comprehensive and internationally verifiable manner” in exchange for a recognition of Iran’s right to nuclear energy for peaceful purposes and cooperation on nuclear technology, including the provision of light water reactors.

As expected, Iran rejected the initial European proposal as “unabalanced” because it called for the indefinite suspension of enrichment activities.

Iranian Counterproposal

The Iranians presented a counter-proposal, emphasizing Iran’s legal right to conduct enrichment under the NPT. The counter-proposal was summarized Islamic Republic News Agency:

The central axis of the Iranian proposal rests on the demand to the European Union, the International Atomic Energy Agency and the other international parties to give official recognition to the right of Iran to embark on the uranium enrichment and nuclear fuel cycles processes, in return for Iran’s acceptance of a time tabled plan for reaching an agreement and giving a free hand to the inspectors of the Agency.

The Islamic Republic of Iran will certainly not agree to the permanent suspension of the uranium enrichment program and the process of meeting the needs of the fuel cycle from domestic sources. However, Iran will accept to temporarily suspend these processes in order to reach an agreement with the European sides, and it will allow a comprehensive inspection of its nuclear installations and facilities by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Domest Politics in Iran

The Islamic Consultative Assembly (Majlis), which is dominated by hardliners, announced their intention to pass a bill obligating the government to resume the enrichment of uranium and end IAEA inspections under the additional protocol Iran signed in December 2003. The Majlis, on October 31, passed a more broadly worded agreement that obligates the government “to take action for the country to master civilian nuclear technology, especially in the fuel production cycle.”

News agencies differed over whether the bill actually required the resumption of enrichment. The bill does not, in any event, set a date for the resumption.

Perhaps more significant, state-run television quoted Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on October 27 saying that “A long term suspension of enrichment is a discussion without logic.”

These appear to be tangible signs of an internal dispute in Iran between reformists and hardliners over the nuclear program.

Reformists appear to be attempting to dismisss the move. Ali Tajernia, a former reformist member of the Majles, told the Islamic Labor News Agency that “The ratification of today’s bill … was more of a political maneuver because despite the Majles’s expectations, it was not involved in the decision-making process.” He did not expect the bill to “have a detrimental impact on the nuclear negotiations. … When high-ranking officials of this country agree to suspend the enrichment process in the short-term, the Majles can do nothing about it.”

Government officials also sounded optimistic. Asked if the bill could force the government to resume enrichment., negotiator Hossein Mousavian told Reuters: “No, it just means that Iran’s rights should be respected and there should be no discrimination against it.”

US Policy

Even if the EU and Iran agree on a mutually acceptable mix of technology cooperation and inspections, odds are that a Bush Administration will object that the agreement gives Iran too much technology with too little oversight. Boucher expressed concern about some provisions in the EU3 proposal, including the proposals support for continued construction of a light-water reactor at Bushehr. If the EU3 proposal nears the limit of what Iranain politics will accept, it may also near the limit of Washington’s tolerance.

The Bush Administration, as it is currently constructed, appears too divided to accept any compromise reached by the EU3 and Iran.

  • The Bush Administration has not completed a PDD on Iran, begun shortly after Bush assumed office in January 2001.
  • The Bush Administration still doesn’t have a public position on whether it will support the EU3 compromise, beyond expressing skepticism about allowing Iran any additional access to nuclear technology.
  • Cheney and Rumsfeld quashed proposals for counter-terrorism cooperation with Iran, citing concern that cooperation would legitimate Iran and other state sponsors of terrorism.

There is little reason to believe that a re-elected Bush Administration will resolve long-simmering policy debates in favor of more cooperative agreements.

Recent signs point to a hardening of US policy unrelated to the election. Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham suspended all work at the national laboratories on Iran. The halt has not been announced publicly, but speculation centers on the role of DOE analysts in undermining Administration claims on those infamous Iraqi aluminum tubes.

Apparently, a Lawrence Livermore employee has given a briefing that two of my colleagues have seen that concludes the light water reactor under construction at Bushehr is not a substantial proliferation risk. Support for the Bushehr reactor is a mjor element of the EU3 proposal.

What a Kerry Administration will do is even less clear. During the campaign, Kerry and his surrogates have argued for a more forceful role for the United States in the Iran-EU3 talks.

Summarized Posts

Terms of the Iranian Enrichment Bill Still Unclear
Iran: Whiskey Tango Foxtrot?
No Sh*t, Reuters: Iran Stalling Until After the Election
Bushehr Update
More on Iran
National Labs Suspending Work on Iran?
Iranian Enrichment Facility at Natanz